How meditation helps with “emotional sobriety”!

In this blog we have considered two main and fundamental areas:-

1. that alcoholism appears to be an emotional regulation and processing disorder which implicates impaired functioning of brain regions and neural networks involved in regulation and processing emotion such as the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

2. that in early and later recovery there appears to be increased functioning in these areas especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is important not only in regulating emotions but also in abstinence success.

Our third point is that mediation, of various types, appears to strengthen the very areas implicated in emotional regulation and processing, which ultimately helps with “emotional sobriety” and long term recovery.

Various studies have shown that mindfulness mediation training in expert meditators, as well as novices,  influenced areas of the brain involved in attention, awareness and emotion (1,2).




A key feature of mindfulness meditators may be the ability to recognise and accurately label emotions (3). Brain FMRI studies have shown more mindful people having increased ability to control emotional reactions in various areas associated with emotional regulation such as the amgydala, dlPFC, and ACC (4).

In a study (5) on the the effects of long term meditation on physical structure of the above brain regions, practitioners of mindful meditation who meditated 30-40 minutes a day, had increased thickness due to neuroplasticity of meditation in brain regions associated with attention and interoception (sensitivity to somatic or internal bodily stimuli) than the matched controls used in this study. Again the regions observed to have greater thickness via increased neural activity (neuroplasticity) were the PFC, right insula (interoception and this increased appreciation of bodily sensations and emotions) as well as the ACC in attention (and possible self awareness as ACC is also linked to consciousness) .

A structural MRI study (6) showed that experienced mindfulness meditators also had increased grey matter the right interior insula and PFC as well as, in unpublished data, in the hippocampus, which is implicated in memory but also in stress regulation. Thus mindfulness meditation and the fMRI and MRI studies show it is possible to train the mind to change brain morphology and functionality through the neuroplastic behaviour of meditating.

Brain regions consistently strengthen or which grow additonal “neural muscles” are those associated with emotional regulation and processing such as the dlPFC, ACC, insula and amgydala.   Thus if we want, as recovering individuals,  to shore up our early recovery, by strengthening the brain regions implicated in recovery success we meditate on a regular basis, daily, so that we can also improve those underlying difficulties in emotional regulation and processing.

By relieving emotional distress we greatly lessen the grip our condition has on us on a daily basis, We recover these functions.  We will discuss the role of meditation on reducing emotional distress in later blogs.





1. Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin132(2), 180.

2,  Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences12(4), 163-169.

3.  Analayo. (2003). Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Awakening. Birmingham, UK: Windhorse Publications.

4.  Creswell, J. D., Way, B. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling.Psychosomatic Medicine69(6), 560-565.

5.  Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport16(17), 1893.

6. Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Hempel, H., Hackl, A., Wolf, K., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2007). Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience letters421(1), 16-21.


see also  Hijacking the Brain

Getting “out of self” through prayer and meditation?

When I first came into recovery I constantly heard the refrain about “getting out of self” – in fact steps 10-12 help one do so. Step 12, by helping others in recovery and step 11 which encourages prayer and mediation. Can we get out of “self” by prayer and mediation? I will be dedicating a number of blogs to mediation so will just briefly consider prayer here. In one study Franciscan nuns had their brains imaged via SPECT which looked at blood-flow in their brains while they were engaged in a type of mystic union called  ‘centring prayer’ which involves opening themselves to being in  the presence of God (and not in “self”). In centring prayer the nuns had a “loss of usual forms of space  During prayer there was demonstrated increase in blood flow in the PFC inferior parietal and inferior frontal lobes  and a decreased flow in the superior parietal lobe, which is related to feelings of “self”.


I mention this type of meditation, also because it is a meditation/prayer that I do myself. Click here for more information on this wonderful prayer technique and how it is used by Fr Frank Keating and 12 step groups  – I alternate with this and vispassana meditation which also makes one feel like they are no longer in “self”, that the self is an ephemeral reality, always changing so not static, fixed – the self is thus an illusion in a sense as it is constantly changing. Regardless, of their different origins, both when practiced can transport one to a place seemingly beyond feelings of being in self. The self seems to blend into a widen sense of consciousness without parameters or boundaries such as limited by self. In this state of being, one can view the fleeting images  of the self dispassionately, not being moved by them or reacting to them. Images of the self dissolve like into snow flakes in snow. As we we will see in other blogs, meditation also reduces stress, improves neurotransmission in neurostransmitters effected by chronic addiction, e.g. GABA and strengthens neural regions of the brain that are very important to recovery. The findings of these and other studies of prayer bear some similarity to studies in meditators such as on Tibetan Buddhist meditators (1) so I would not get hung up on the apparent religiosity  or non-religiosity of these ways of meditating. to me they achieve something very similar. It they work they Work! The meditative and spiritual experiences are partly mediated through deactivation of the superior parietal lobe which normally helps to generate the normal sense of “self” (2)


A  beautiful and enriching respite from self regulation and a profound sense of wholeness, and connection with something beyond self whatever that being beyond self is.  Therapeutically we have to somehow move beyond a reactionary self to a mindful one. From an emotional distressed one to a serene one. The brain is healthier after mediation than before.   As mentioned in other blogs, without emotional distress this condition can be quite dormant.   References 1.  Newberg, A. B., & Iversen, J. (2003). The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical hypotheses61(2), 282-291. 2. d’Aquili, E. G., & Newberg, A. B. (2000). The neuropsychology of aesthetic, spiritual, and mystical states. Zygon®35(1), 39-51. From Hijacking the Brain